Women Hurt Most by Student Loan Crisis

Back of a woman in cap and gown

Photo by MD Duran for Unsplash

May 06, 2019


When women take the stage to get their diplomas this spring, they’ll be graduating to staggering student loan debt. As of early 2019, women hold almost two-thirds ($929 billion) of the country’s $1.46-trillion student debt, according to a new analysis by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) report, Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans.

“Student loan debt is very much a women’s issue,” says Kim Churches, CEO of AAUW. “Sadly, as women graduate, they are already at a significant financial disadvantage, with higher debt and lower pay in their first jobs than men.”

Women borrow more, and because of the gender pay gap—wherein women earn 80 cents for every dollar paid to men—they also take longer to pay off their loans. The problem is even more severe for women of color.

And it’s getting worse for everyone. Indeed, the cost of a college education has skyrocketed by 103% since 1987, while household median income has risen a meager 14% in the same period. The student loan crisis has already become a centerpiece of 2020 presidential campaigns, with virtually every candidate voicing a position or supporting a policy to address it.

Meanwhile, the Class of ’19 represents the most racially and ethnically diverse U.S. college student body ever—and women comprise a growing majority of students. Women earned 57% of bachelor’s degrees in 2019. In fact, women will outpace men in obtaining degrees at all levels of higher education.

“Despite all the advances women have made in education, they still face a pay gap from the moment they graduate,” says Churches. In an apples-to-apples comparison of workers one year out of college with the same education, hours worked and family responsibilities, women earned 7 percent less than their male counterparts, according to AAUW’s report Graduating to a Pay Gap.

Here are additional findings from AAUW’s recent analysis and other research:

  • The student loan gender gap has nearly doubled in a recent four-year period, and women now graduate with an average of $2,700 more debt than men when earning a bachelor’s degree.
  • Newly released data from the 2015-16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study reveal that black women graduate with the most debt – $30,400 – compared to $22,000 for white women and $19,500 for white men.
  • Women take about two years longer than men to repay student loans and are more likely to struggle economically as they do so. As a result, they often put off saving for retirement, buying a home or starting a business.

To address the student loan crisis, AAUW is calling on lawmakers to safeguard and expand Pell Grants and other forms of aid; to support efforts toward tuition- and debt-free options for students; and to help meet students’ academic and financial needs, including affordable access to child care. AAUW also advocates for policies and practices aimed at closing the gender pay gap; these include federal legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was recently approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, as well state and local bills promoting equal pay.

“As an organization committed to gender equity, we support policies that make higher education accessible to all students, protect student borrowers, and help eliminate the gender and race gaps in loan debt,” says Churches.